Unique Hughley steps up to the microphone. For three minutes, he has the whole stage — and the whole audience’s attention.
“I was labeled a f** before I even knew the meaning of the word,” he starts.
He launches into a rhythmic performance, tracing his experience as a young man with “a girl’s name.” He spits words of anger and frustration, about hypocrisy in religion, about bullied gay people, about trying to overcome everything life threw at him.
“Love was created in the womb of Mother Earth, and it was her job to birth it,” he says. “But you cursed it.”
With this performance, Hughley solidifies his spot as the final member of a team of poets who will compete at the national level in August.
He’s now a part of Slam Ulit, Kansas City’s only certified team of poets to compete regionally and nationally. The group will take five members to the National Poetry Slam in Decatur, Ga., Aug. 1-6 after making its nationals debut last year.
The organization behind the competition, Poetry Slam Inc., says it emphasizes both writing and performance, although the judges focus on the way a piece is spoken more than the piece itself. Slam Ulit member Sheri Hall calls it a sort of bloodsport.
They built their Kansas City team by hosting poetry slams every fourth Tuesday of the month. It’s an open mic — anyone can perform poetry — and five judges are randomly selected from the audience. They hold a grand final slam to choose the nationals team.
Their slammaster, M’Vyonne Payne, founded Slam Ulit in 2014 because she thought the area needed more slam culture. As a professional touring poet, she was met with surprise in other cities when she said she was from Kansas City.
“People were like, ‘Oh, they do poetry in Kansas City? I didn’t even know,’” she said. “And it was almost kind of hurtful, in a way, to know how much talent was here and how many people were just completely oblivious to it.”
To be certified, a group must host six slams a season — usually between August and June. Their audiences must have at least 30 people, and the slammaster must submit six pieces of evidence — videos, fliers, websites, etc. — to prove the slams actually happened. Once certified, the group becomes eligible for nationals by sending in an application and paying a fee. Slam Ulit must raise $3,200 to cover travel and lodging.
To prepare for nationals, the group meets twice a week to go over business, pitch new poem ideas and rehearse poems in the works. At a recent meeting, the poem topics ranged from Steve Harvey to personal hygiene to the shooting in Orlando. There’s not a huge emphasis on performance this early on; these practices hone in on the words instead.
Without giving any context or title, Hughley read a new poem to gauge the immediate reaction from his teammates. He described a young boy watching tragic events on television while his parents danced oblivious in the background, with “planes crashing into bodies.”
Although perplexed, the group members agreed the poem was about how media can harm young black people. The real subject? Sept. 11.
And so Hughley decided to go back to the drawing board.
Payne leads the practices each week. She’s responsible for keeping the team running and in check — “wrangling cats,” as she called it. With the nationals approaching, she takes on the role of team strategist, editing and leading the selection of poems.
At nationals, she decides off-the-cuff who performs which poem when. Teams typically come with a solid arsenal — last year, Slam Ulit went with 21 memorized poems. She decides who goes on stage based on the competition before them. If she’s watching a string of somber poems, for example, she might bring out something lighthearted. And vice versa.
“There are so many different walks of life represented in poetry slam,” Payne said. “When you go to nationals, you meet people that you would probably never come across in any other avenue of life. All of these different types of people with different ethnicities, different races, social and economic classes are all here, and they’re all here under the love of art.”
The team going to nations is made up of “five of the most supremely talented poets in Kansas City,” said Jen Harris, slammaster for another local team, Kansas City Poetry Slam.
“I think that they’re going to excel at a rate that no one will be able to see coming,” she said. “They all bring something different to the table.”
Her group works closely with Slam Ulit to promote local slams. When she founded her group in 2014, the goal was to go to nationals, but she decided the process was too intense. Art shouldn’t be about competition, she said, and nationals can put a lot of stress on young artists.
“Trying to keep five temperamental artists on the same page for a certain amount of time is exhausting,” she said.
Slam Ulit isn’t going to nationals with the sole aim of winning, however. Hall said it’s more of a conference, with workshops to hone skills and networking opportunities for emerging poets.
“We plan on continuing to replicate this program, because it brings national attention to Kansas City,” she said. “We’ve been able to meet, connect with and bring national poets here as well as expand the careers of poets in Kansas City and bring some of the teaching back from nationals.”
Hughley, the youngest member in the group, will experience the big nationals for the first time this year. He’s trying not to focus on the competition.
“I think it will be difficult, in a sense, but I don’t really have winning on my agenda,” he said. “I just want to show I’m my own poet.”
Slam Ulit hosts poetry slams at 8 p.m. every fourth Tuesday of the month — the next one is June 28 — at John’s Big Deck, 928 Wyandotte. Admission is $5.
The group will also host a showcase at 7:30 p.m. July 10 at the Westport Coffee House Theater, 4010 Pennsylvania. Admission is $10 in advance and $15 at the door.
To support Slam Ulit as it prepares for nationals, visit its donation page: https://www.fracturedatlas.org/site/fiscal/profile?id=12725.